Please upgrade your browser

For the best experience, you should upgrade your browser. Visit our accessibility page to view a list of supported browsers along with links to download the latest version.

Critical & Historical Studies College-wide Programme

The RCA provides a unique environment for postgraduate art and design students to reflect upon their own practice and to engage critically with students from their own and other disciplines. As part of the ‘university experience’ of being at the College, all first-year MA students on studio-based programmes follow a weekly schedule delivered by the Critical & Historical Studies (CHS) programme.

The Programme

CHS delivers:

  • exciting, thought-provoking and inspiring lectures by experts within the programme and high-profile visiting lecturers
  • the opportunity for students to explore the theoretical background and aspects of their chosen discipline through a tutored dissertation process
  • individual tutorial support from our programme’s team of expert tutors.

The purpose of the CHS programme is to encourage debate, understanding, intellectual confidence and self-expression in the history, philosophy and criticism of the various disciplines taught at the College. It is designed to enhance each student’s experience at the College by engaging with important ideas that are relevant to their studio work in an exciting and challenging manner. The programme provides each student with an intellectual framework within which they can begin to establish a coherent relationship between theory and practice. The CHS programme is supported by RCADE, the RCA’s Virtual Learning Environment (VLE).

Critical & Historical Studies differs from the other academic programmes as it does not offer a single, taught MA programme. Instead, it delivers College-wide activities that support the other teaching programmes, enabling critical engagements to take place within each discipline. It is designed to enhance each student’s experience at the College by engaging with important ideas that are relevant to their studio work in an exciting and challenging manner. It provides each student with an intellectual framework within which they can begin to establish a coherent relationship between theory and practice.

Critical & Historical Studies Staff

All of the College’s academic staff are practitioners in art, design or related disciplines. We also attract some of the most eminent artists, designers, intellectuals and business people working in their fields to give seminars, lectures, masterclasses, crits and individual tutorials.

Biographies and Research Profiles of programme staff can be found under Staff

Liaison Tutors

Arts & Humanities: Professor Gemma BlackshawDr Chantal Faust
Architecture: Dr Adam Kaasa
Communication Design: Dr Gareth Polmeer
Design: Dr Matthew Wraith, Dr Shehnaz Suterwalla


Jonathan Miles
Jo Pickering

Autumn Term

In the first term of their first year, MA students are offered a range of courses that are each closely related to one of the groups of disciplines represented by the schools: applied art, architecture and design, communications, fashion and textiles and fine art. Through lectures, screenings, visits and seminars, they explore key debates and issues within contemporary culture. While most students will take a course that is related to their particular discipline, there is also the opportunity for them to explore issues outside of their discipline by electing for one of the other courses. The details of the different courses are listed in a comprehensive brochure, which is distributed at the beginning of the academic year. Each of the courses will also have an interactive page on RCAde, the College's virtual learning environment. These pages will not only contain essential week-by-week information regarding the course, but will also provide students with the opportunity to continue debates and discussions and to upload and download course materials.

Spring Term

In the second term of the first year, students have the opportunity to select for themselves one of the set of College-wide courses that are concerned with broad, cross-disciplinary issues and that provide opportunities for students from a variety of disciplines to mix and discuss areas of common concern. By presenting a broad spectrum of ideas, issues and approaches, they help to prepare students for the challenge of undertaking their CHS dissertation. The College-wide options on offer change every year, and are described in detail in a second brochure, to be found on the relevant page of RCAde.

The Dissertation

The remainder of the academic year is devoted to the preparation and writing of a dissertation on a self-selected topic. Students are closely tutored by staff who are chosen as far as is possible to correspond with their chosen subject. As part of that process of preparation, students take part in research methods and work-in-progress seminars and receive regular individual tutorials. They are also required to submit a draft so their tutor can assess their progress and prepare them properly for bringing their work to a successful conclusion. A detailed guide to undertaking the dissertation is distributed to all students at the start of the dissertation programme. This information will be available on RCADE, and students will also be able to submit via RCADE all interim submissions, tutorial logs and feedback forms. The dissertation must be passed in order for a student to undertake their final exam.

College-wide Reading Groups, Seminar & Screening Series

In addition to the core Critical & Historical Studies curriculum in the first year of the MA, CHS offers a wide range of College-wide drop-in events throughout the year, open to students across all programmes. The 2018/19 College-wide series includes:

The Politics of the Gaze Seminar Series

Led by Dr Shehnaz Suterwalla

The Politics of the Gaze Reading Group explores the act of spectatorship: that is the act of seeing and being seen, and how this is rooted in political, social and cultural lived experience encoded with socio-culturally defined knowledge and values. We will use a range of fiction, non-fiction, blogs, poetry and genre-defying writing to discuss ideas about (mis?)representations in the context of contemporary identity politics and reflexive practice debates. The readings will address key themes that include, but are not limited to: race, feminisms and sexual politics, cultural appropriation, intersectionality, embodiment, and we will explore what they illuminate and provoke.

Aesthetics and Philosophy Seminar Series

Led by Jonathan Miles

'Art means access to what cannot be anticipated: art comes to presence on its own limit and as this limit…'
– Martta Heikkila, At the Limits of Presentation, p. 291

The Aesthetics and Philosophy seminars will present a series of issues within discrete units around ideas such as the seeable and the sayable, performativity affective encounters, excess, modernity and the contemporary, image and figure, schematism and gesture.

Science and Fiction Screenings: Visual Encounters with the Future

Led by Matthew Wraith & Barry Curtis (RCA) & Richard Watson (Imperial)

This programme of viewings will address various past and recent fictions that anticipate new technologies and their impact on the human condition. The first screening will include High Treason [dir. Maurice Elvey, 1929] and other visual texts that speculate on alternative futures. Each session will commence with a brief contextualising talk and conclude with an optional discussion. 

Pleasure and Utopia Film Screening Series

Led by Barry Curtis

This programme of screenings focuses on ‘pleasure’ and the ways in which Hollywood addressed audiences at the height of its popularity – that is, between the coming of ‘Talkies’ in the late 1920s and the dismantling of the ‘Studio System’ by the 1960s. We will look at a selection of films in the light of Richard Dyer’s influential essay ‘Entertainment and Utopia’ in order to try to understand how the complex operations of genre, narrative, performance, cinematography and ideology were so successful in constituting an audience for cinema. We will need to make the effort to understand how ‘original’ audiences were positioned and what kinds of pleasures they sought and derived. As ‘the past is a foreign country’, this will require a process of temporal translation, and an openness to timely fantasies and aspirations. Be prepared for musicals, westerns, detective fictions and melodramas – and the complex orchestration of scenario building, editing, narrative structures and the complex phenomena of ‘stardom’, ‘authenticity’ and the management of expectations. Each film will be introduced with a brief contextualising talk and followed by an optional discussion.

Womxn and Non-binary People of Colour Reading Group

Led by Tanveer Ahmed

This weekly group provides a space to question the dominance of Eurocentric heteronormative male-dominated views in art and design. Together, we share texts and visuals from a women-of-colour feminist perspective to consider more inclusive forms of art and design practices and theories. Termly ‘readings’ will be chosen collectively by the group.

Global Design History, Edited by Glenn Adamson, Girogio Riello and Sarah Teasley
Glenn Adamson, Giorgio Riello and Sarah Teasley, Global Design History (London: Routledge, 2011)